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Justice Lauds West Virginia Board of Education for Standing Firm on In-Person Instruction

Photo Provided West Virginia Gov. Jim Justice delivers a coronavirus briefing Thursday, during which he praised state Board of Education members for sticking with their decision to mandate elementary and middle schools reopen this week for in-person instruction.

CHARLESTON — As West Virginia’s two teachers’ unions filed lawsuits to block a state Board of Education mandate for in-person school, Gov. Jim Justice said Thursday he applauded board members for holding their ground.

“I am really happy our schools have reopened for in-person learning. It’s going smoothly at this time,” Justice said during his coronavirus briefing Thursday at the Capitol. “I want to thank the state Board of Education for everything they’re doing to make sure the in-person learning option is made available to all of our families across the state.”

Both the West Virginia Education Association and the West Virginia chapter of the American Federation of Teachers filed injunctions Wednesday against the state Board of Education and the Department of Education. The AFT-WV suit also names Kanawha County, while the WVEA lists both Kanawha and Monongalia counties.

“Decisions to teach in person, remotely, hybrid and online should be a local decision, made by those who are the most impacted,” said WVEA President Dale Lee in a statement Wednesday evening.

“AFT-WV also seeks to protect and affirm the important role of local boards of education in protecting the health and safety of the community and their students and education employees,” said Jennifer Wood, a spokesperson for AFT-WV, in a statement Wednesday afternoon. “Local control of such decisions is vital to the effective operation of 55 school systems in this very diverse state.”

Both suits would prohibit the state board from enforcing a directive to county school boards prohibiting remote learning except for high schools in red counties on the Department of Health and Human Resources’ County Alert System map.

Responding to the lawsuits Thursday, Justice accused the unions of playing politics after losing big in the 2020 election. Both unions supported Justice’s Democratic opponent, Kanawha County Commissioner Ben Salango. Justice encouraged teachers to ignore their union leadership.

“If you don’t want to go to work … I can’t help that,” Justice said. “If you’re really in a situation where the union leaders are out there just beating the drum and everything … I have no earthly clue why you’re still trying to cling to union leaders who took you down the wrong path.”

The state board voted Jan. 13 to require county Pre-K, elementary, and middle schools to open for in-person instruction four or five days each week, or they can move to hybrid-blended models that allow for schools to be open at least two days per week until their teachers are fully vaccinated with both doses of either the Pfizer/BioNTech or Moderna vaccines. Most teachers had only received the first dose before the start of school on Tuesday.

As of Thursday, three out of 55 counties, Gilmer, Marion, and Taylor, remain on remote learning, either choosing to follow the previous state guidelines from the Department of Health and Human Resources and the Department of Education, or developing their own guidelines to determine when it was safe to re-open schools for in-person learning.

“I think that is a mistake,” Justice said. “All these people are grown-ups. I think they’re plenty capable of making decisions and being responsible for their decisions.”

The state board held an emergency meeting Wednesday to discuss options to force the three counties to follow its Jan. 13 directive, but after an hour of debate the board decided to wait until its Tuesday meeting before taking any punitive actions.

“The way our constitution reads, (the state Board of Education) are the ones to make these decisions,” Justice said.

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